BROOKSVILLE — When the sun rises Tuesday in Hernando County, an important change will kick in — one that few people likely will notice.
The change may best be signified by a new patch worn by employees of the reconstituted Hernando County Fire Rescue District. The patch was designed and voted on by employees of the former, separate county and Spring Hill fire-rescue districts.
Embroidered on the bottom is the Latin phrase "unitate fortior," which translates to "strength by being united.''
And as Tuesday dawns, the multiyear effort to unite the two departments will be officially complete.
Chief Mike Rampino thought it was important for the rank and file to create the new patch together.
"We talked about that moving forward. It's not yours. It's not ours. It's something completely new,'' he said. "The people liked it. Uniforms will have that on them. Eventually that will be on the trucks. It's going to be a little start in history.''
Unifying the county's fire departments was the primary recommendation that came out of a study requested by the County Commission and completed in 2007.
The work has been ongoing, with the departments standardizing procedures and working together on purchases and processes. Emergency dispatching was consolidated.
But it wasn't until the voters in the old Spring Hill Fire Rescue District rejected having their fire commission tax them that consolidation became a reality.
The other new reality is the way the 39,000 property owners who were former residents of the Spring Hill district will pay for fire-rescue service.
Previously, they paid through a dedicated property tax.
Beginning with the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts Tuesday, property owners throughout most of the county will pay a maximum annual flat fee of $171.44 for fire service, plus a 0.5534 millage assessment for emergency medical services.
Hernando Beach, High Point and Brooksville residents won't pay the flat fee because they have their own fire departments.
Those who had Hernando County Fire Rescue service in the past will see a $23.43 savings from the old fire fee of $194.37.
However, more than half of Spring Hill residents, who have paid for fire-rescue service through a 2.50-mill property tax, are likely to pay more, including some property owners who have never paid for service because of their low property values.
In addition, churches, which were exempt under Spring Hill's system, now will be charged the assessment.
Last week, Rampino sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to answer questions about the details of the consolidation.
What remains to be consolidated, and where are you in that process?
The only unfinished task is merging the two separate contracts from the firefighter unions into one under Professional Firefighters of Hernando County Local 3760, Rampino said.
Pay is one of the outstanding issues.
Spring Hill's top-tier firefighter-paramedics currently make $55,945 a year, compared with $49,954 for Hernando County personnel.
Firefighters from both districts have agreed that phasing in increases over time is preferable to asking Spring Hill staffers to take a pay cut, and Rampino said he is not opposed to that method.
The union proposal that's on the table calls for former Spring Hill personnel to be frozen at their current salaries if they are above their county counterparts until the Hernando firefighters catch up. That might take six or seven years, he said.
Other nonmonetary issues, such as seniority and vacation time, were worked out among the parties, and Rampino said there have been no major disputes about how such things will be handled.
In the new combined district, there are 239 employees represented by the union out of a total of 260.
Are the firefighters and command staff already mixed, with Hernando and Spring Hill firefighters working side by side? Do you see a cultural divide between the two groups of employees?
They are not yet working side by side, Rampino said. But with the official Oct. 1 merger date arriving, employees will be part of one department, and there could be command personnel and firefighter-paramedics moving from station to station anywhere in the county.
"The culture,'' he said, "we started working on that two years ago.''
As more of the protocols and procedures have been merged, the employees have grown more uniform in how they do their jobs, the chief said. They also have begun their own efforts to integrate, such as inviting the other department's families to social events.
Rampino said the employees have been professional and that while some might have expected a divide, "we haven't seen it. There has been no clash.''
The County Commission agreed with your proposal to add 18 new firefighters in the new fiscal year to allow all 13 fire stations to comply with established safety standards in staffing. What are the details of that plan, and where are you in the process?
"We're very appreciative to what the board did with regards to that,'' Rampino said.
The first 12 new employees will allow all fire engines to respond to emergencies with three firefighter-paramedics. There are still four stations that have just two, and that has created safety concerns on the scenes of emergencies, Rampino said.
The other six new employees will allow the full staffing of a temporary Station 5 in Spring Hill, a location where the fire study recommended a new station.
In December, the County Commission approved a temporary site for a fire station on the east side of Eldridge Road, south of Spring Hill Drive. A modular building will serve as the station until the new district can save enough over the next five years to build a permanent station at the nearby Spring Hill Branch/Harold G. Zopp Memorial Library on Spring Hill Drive, the chief said.
Up until now, a full-time fire truck has been at the site, but the ambulance there only has operated during weekdays. The new personnel will allow a full-time ambulance as well.
"There have been some folks who have said, 'What did Spring Hill get out of this whole thing?' They got a fire station. They got a fully operational 24/7 fire station, so obviously their response times go down,'' Rampino said. "They picked up added protection.''
Interviews are currently under way for the new positions. Finding 18 new employees at one time is the largest hiring operation that county fire-rescue has ever undertaken, Rampino said.
Have any fire trucks or other major equipment been moved from the territory of one department to the other?
None of the equipment or trucks have been moved, he said. On a temporary basis, one or two vehicles may be in the shop or responding to a different zone, but that has always been the case.
There has been some talk in the city of Brooksville about a possible merger in the future. Have you been approached about this or heard any details?
"The only thing I know about it is what I read in the paper," Rampino said. "Nobody has given us any direction or asked us to come up with numbers."
Given all of the controversy over Spring Hill Fire Rescue's independence and the contentious discussions that led up to the referendum where voters failed to give the district any taxing authority, what did you find as the most difficult part of the merger?
Rampino said there really wasn't anything difficult about the merger.
By the end of 2011, Rampino, the former Spring Hill fire chief, had moved to county fire-rescue headquarters in Brooksville.
"It would have been a waste of money (to maintain an office in Spring Hill)," he said. "It served no purpose.''
Even before the move toward consolidation, the two departments had been working together in many ways, including purchasing the same trucks, using the same medical protocol and sharing a medical director, he said. Their interlocal agreements ensured that the closest fire truck responded to a scene, regardless of whether it was in a Spring Hill or county zone.
Rampino said it just made sense to work together.
"At the end of the day, it's our job to make sure we deliver the appropriate service to the people who pay our salaries so they get the best possible bang for their dollar,'' he said.
Rampino looks at the rocky road that he traveled to get to this day as a positive learning experience for himself and a huge boon for Hernando County.
"There was a lot of contention going forward. But at the end of the day, I want to say that the county is a much better place for it,'' he said. "Five years from now, nobody will remember it.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.